Unfree Elections

Monterey County Registrar of Voters Claudio Valenzuela and his staff keep track of 101 different contests on Election Day this Nov. 6, with 256 unique ballots prepared for Monterey County voters.

For four months leading up to Aug. 10, the last day for candidates to file paperwork to run in the Nov. 6 election, the Moss Landing Harbor District Board of Commissioners and staff sweated out a potential $600,000 to $800,000 tab to pay for elections. When Aug. 10 came and went and no one stepped forward to challenge three incumbents, they breathed a sigh of relief. No challengers meant there would be no election – bad for democracy but good for the budget.

“I’m obviously very relieved, because that represents one-quarter of our operating budget,” Harbormaster Linda McIntyre says. (The district is also facing a potential $1.5 million bill for dredging the harbor this year – a once-every-five-year chore to keep it passable for boats.)

The panic started in April when McIntyre received an estimate from the Monterey County Elections Department stating the district would potentially be charged between $6 to $8 per registered voter. Although the harbor is in North Monterey County, the district is geographically one of the largest special districts in the county, at 364 square miles, reaching southward past Salinas, and encompasses more than 100,000 registered voters. Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System rivals it in size geographically, and has 83,600 voters.

The last contested election in 2014 cost the Harbor District $150,000, or $1.81 per voter. “I do not understand how it could have jumped so high and created such a burden for a little entity like ours,” McIntyre says.

Math is not on the harbor district’s side. Monterey County Registrar of Voters Claudio Valenzuela says fees have not increased, but the issue is the number of contested seats and registered voters. Since 2014, there are an additional 12,000 registered voters in the harbor district. And that year, there was just one seat up for re-election, not three.

Cost varies depending on how much space candidate and ballot measure statements take up in voter guides. Some jurisdictions pay as much as $10 per voter.

“We can account for every penny we bill,” says Bella Lesik, management analyst for Monterey County Elections. Elections employees track their time by jurisdiction, and bill to recoup that cost. For work that supports the county’s entire election process and cannot be assessed to one entity, a formula divides the cost between all participating jurisdictions. “It is very complicated, but it’s ironclad,” Lesik says.

It takes the Elections Department six to eight months to prepare for an election. It prepares voting books and ballots in English and Spanish, as well as for the visually impaired. This year, there are 108 different books and a total of 256 unique ballots to cover individual precincts.

There is also security. Counting machines are kept in a locked room with limited employee access. The department’s network is monitored 24/7.

There are ways to reduce a special district’s costs, including limiting the length of candidate statements, or directing voters to a website.

“This is the fabric of democracy, to have representation by citizens on these boards,” Valenzuela says. “There’s a cost to it. It’s not free.”

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